The magician/historian/actor/collector Ricky Jay has published a beautiful book of bizarre broadsides that date back hundreds of years. The broadsides come from Jay's own collection, which he recently put on display in a gallery in San Francisco. Here is a San Francisco Chronicle article about the show.
He started his collection more than 25 years ago during leaner times. Jay and his magic opened for Cheech and Chong, Emmylou Harris and the B-52's during the night, while he searched for learned pigs, flea circuses and an elusive armless dulcimer player by day.
"Most of them came from being on the road, visiting bookshops and print galleries while I was performing," Jay says.
He wrote about many of his greatest finds in the 1990s publication "Jay's Journal of Anomalies," which was released in book form three years ago and has been revisited on Jay's weekly radio show on KCRW in Los Angeles. The broadsides have also been made into a book, which is being sold at the museum now and will be available in bookstores soon.
With relatively few collectors of this kind of art, Jay says the broadsides often find their way to him these days, instead of the other way around. That includes an 1816 broadside for Giuseppe De Rossi, an Italian magician who boasted he could sever the head of a steer and then make the animal whole again. When a trader presented Jay with the weathered document a couple of months ago, he wasn't aware De Rossi existed.
To understand the magician's joy, imagine a collector of 20th century baseball cards in the 24th century, who discovers there was a player named Roberto Clemente by unearthing his rookie card.
"I've been researching this piece, and I've found literally no record of De Rossi at all," Jay says. "Tomorrow or 10 years from now you may run across a newspaper account describing him. Or maybe he's absolutely lost to history except for this one sheet."
While there are a few performers mainstream audiences may have heard of in the exhibition -- conjoined twins Chang and Eng come to mind -- Jay's favorites seem to be the broadsides that present more questions than answers. He's particularly fond of the prose on the advertisements, most of which seems to come before the advent of irony.
"Wonderful Remains of an ENORMOUS HEAD," one broadside reads, without giving details of whose head is on display or its current condition. "18 Feet in Length, 7 Feet in Breadth and Weighing 1,700 Pounds."